Did you know that Malta's history is older than the Pyramids? The archipelago is home to some of the world's oldest human structures and many of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Moving on to the later millennia, the strategic geographical position of the island has naturally attracted the ruling military powers of that period. Phoenicians, Greek, Romans, Moors, the Knights of the Order of Saint John, the French, the British -- all have left their impact in shaping Malta's history, culture, and architecture ...
Quick facts & geography
Malta is one of the smallest nations in the world (just under half a million inhabitants) situated right in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily and the North African Coast. A part of the EU, the local currency is Euro and there are no visa requirements for US citizens. The official languages are Maltese and English (as a former British colony). The Maltese Archipelago is comprised of Malta (the largest island), Gozo and Comino, with the capital Valletta located on the main island. Malta's territory is very small (122 sq. miles) and the best way to explore it is to use the well-developed Public Bus System.
Travel Tip: Get the Explore Card (Adult) for 21 Euro, and enjoy unlimited rides for a week!
Travel Tip: Order your taxi once you arrive at the airport. Taxi services from Luqa airport to any destination in Malta are available 24 hours a day. Pre-paid tickets can be purchased at fixed rates from the booth at the Welcome Hall.
How many days should you stay in Malta?
It depends on how deep you like to dive into Malta's history. The country is literally packed with historical must-see sights, and although the distances are short, you must take breaks between sights to absorb what you've seen. After spending a full week in Malta, I would recommend putting aside 8-10 days if you like to explore both Malta & Gozo islands (Comino is mostly uninhabited).
When is the best time to visit Malta?
Fortunately, with mild, Mediterranean winters, Malta is a year-round destination but If you really like to immerse yourself into the local culture, plan a trip in the spring and early summer months, when a number of religious and cultural events take place like Malta's Carnival and Mdina Medieval Festival
Travel Tip: If you are in Malta during the summer months, start sightseeing early morning! Malta's midsummer temperatures can go up to 34 C (93 F) in the hottest months July and August. Due to the high temperatures, sightseeing can be a challenge in the later parts of the day. We found breaking the day into two parts the most efficient, like sightseeing in the morning and beach time/sunbathing in the afternoon. For instance, my parents and I were sightseeing in the morning until 1-2 pm, and in the afternoon we were taking the bus from Sliema to St Julian's where the nearest (but not the cleanest) beach was located (St. George's Bay).
Where to stay in Malta
Again it depends on what you'd like to see/do... My parents and I stayed at Sliema, which is one of the popular tourist areas, in the closest proximity with Valletta (appx 25 min by bus). Majority of the accommodations and entertainment are located along the seafront. Note that Sliema does not have beaches per se, but instead "Lidos" which are essentially Beach Clubs with pools. Other popular areas further north are St. Julian's (known for its nightlife), & St. Paul's Bay (quieter tourist village) near which you can find the best beaches in Malta (Golden Bay & Mellieha Bay). If beaches/nightlife are not of importance for you, consider staying in Valletta, where although little quiet in the evening, you can find qualify boutique hotels, restaurants, and wine bars. (Check boutique properties like Palazzo Consiglia, Ursulino)
Travel Tip: Due to the short distances, you can easily commute between the different Bays (for instance, a bus ride between Sliema & St Julian's runs mainly along the seafront and takes about 20 min). The bus schedules are conveniently posted at each designated stop. Lastly, the Explore Card can be used to visit must-see sights like Mdina, Marsaxlokk fishing village & Hagar Qim temple complex, with all buses to the countryside departing from Valletta Bus Terminal.
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Mainly traveled by Europeans, the small Maltese archipelago is somehow off the radar for the rest of the world, however savvy travelers often described it as one big open-air museum. What makes this islands unique is that so much of their past is visible today. The balmy Mediterranean climate makes Malta near around-the year cultural, beach and nightlife destination with all of the attractions packed in a small territory. That's the real advantage of staying here. This blog is inspired by Malta's rich cultural heritage.
Malta's History is closely interwined with the history of Knights of Saint John: What we see today in Malta, is the legacy the Knights of St. John left for us. The Knights Hospitaller (the Knights of Saint John), was a religious and military Roman Catholic order formally founded in the 12th Century to protect Jerusalem against the Ottoman Turks invasion. After the Order of Saint John was expelled from its base in the Island of Rhodes during the Ottoman Siege in 1522, a search for a new base began. This led to a new chapter in the Knights' history when the Pope gave them the island of Malta in 1530. The Knights Hospitallers settled in the area known as the Three Cities and more specifically in Birgu (Vittoriosa). After the Great Siege in 1565, and in order to celebrate the victory over the Turks, the Knights embarked on an ambitious project to build a new capital: Valletta. With one of the highest concentration of historical monuments per territory in the world, today, the city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Start from Valletta
To get the best introduction to Malta's history, start from the capital Valletta followed by the Three Cities. Must see sights are Saint John's Co-Cathedral (an exquisite example of Baroque Architecture), Grand Master's Palace (headquarters of the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John), Upper Barrakka Gardens (Public Gardens), offering panoramic views of the Grand Harbor, Casa Rocca Piccola (a "living" 16 Century Palazzo), Fort Saint Elmo (National War Museum)... this is just short list of the historical sites which you can find in Valletta. If time allows, take a ferry for a scenic ride (multiple departures throughout the day ) to The Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea & Cospicua). Visit The Inquisitor's Palace (seat of the Maltese Inquisition for two centuries) in Birgu (Vittoriosa) is a must!
Reserve a half day tour (I'd suggest Excursions in Malta) or Tours by Locals (private local guides) to get a deeper knowledge of Valletta and the Three Cities history. Especially valuable will be to have a guide with a car in The Three Cities. A former administrative seat of the Knights of St. John, today the cities are left largely unvisited and offer an insight into Malta's Maritime History and authentic Maltese daily life. Although the cities are connected, they are spread out, and we found them not as pedestrian friendly as Valletta and exploring without a car can be a challenge.
As much as my family enjoyed exploring Valletta and the Three Cities, once my parents and I entered the Main Gate into the fortified city of Mdina, we felt like we traveled back to Medieval Times. A former capital of Malta from the antiquity to the medieval period, Mdina is one of Europe's finest examples of an ancient walled city with a unique mix of well-preserved medieval and baroque architecture. The arrival of the Knights of Saint John on the island in 1530 led to moving the capital to Birgu (Vitturiosa) and the city faced a period of decline. Though the centuries, Mdina remained a center of the Maltese noble residents and religious authorities but never regained its pre-1530 importance. Today, Mdina is home to less than 300 inhabitants giving the rise of the popular nickname the "Silent City".
Although Mdina is quite small, dedicating at least a half day is a must. Among the many historical sites worth visiting are St. Paul's Cathedral (second in grandeur after St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta), Cathedral Museum, Palazzo Falson (13th Century Medieval Palace), Carmelite Priory to name a few. Take a time and wander around the narrow streets and stop by a traditional Maltese glassmaking store for a souvenir (Valletta Glass is an excellent choice). If time allows, enjoy a gourmet meal or spend a night in Xara Palace, a 5-star boutique hotel, member of the prestigious collection Relais and Chateaux situated in a 17th Century palace.Although Mdina is quite small, dedicating at least a half day is a must. Among the many historical sites worth visiting are St. Paul's Cathedral (second in grandeur after St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta), Cathedral Museum, Palazzo Falson (13th Century Medieval Palace), Carmelite Priory to name a few. Take a time and wander around the narrow streets and stop by a traditional Maltese glassmaking store for a souvenir (Valletta Glass is an excellent choice). If time allows, enjoy a gourmet meal or spend a night in Xara Palace, a 5-star boutique hotel, member of the prestigious collection Relais and Chateaux situated in a 17th Century palace.
Savor Fresh Seafood in Marsaxlokk
Take a Sunday morning trip to the fish market in Marsaxlokk! This is a picturesque fishing village famous for its bright color boats and its Sunday market. You will have a chance to experience authentic Maltese culture and interact with local fishermen's and farmers. The market is an excellent choice to buy local products, and the sea promenade offers a wide variety of seafood restaurants accommodating every taste and budget.
Visit Hypogeum, Hagar Qim or other megalithic Complexes, UNESCO designated sites
The Maltese archipelago is home to one of the oldest ancient religious temples in the world, believed to be dedicated to Mother Goddess. Located just outside of Valletta, the Hypogeum is a underground sanctuary and necropolis dating to 3300 BC. Continuing just six miles south, you can reach Hagar Qim and Mnajdra megalithic temple complex constructed in the same period- 4th millennium BC. The two temples of Ggantija on the island of Gozo, recognizable for its gigantic Bronze Age structures, are well worth the trip to the island alone.
Visit Gozo & the Blue Lagoon
Lastly, your Malta's vacation won't be completed unless you visit Gozo island and Comino's Blue Lagoon. If your time allows, spend at least couple of days on the former. A regular ferry service carries passengers and cars from Malta to Gozo. The ferries depart from Cirkewwa, Malta to the seaport of Mgarr, Gozo and take about 25 minutes. For schedule and fare information visit Gozo Channel website. Once on the island take the Public Bus to the capital of Gozo.
Although the bus service is not as frequent as in Malta, is a better alternative than renting a car. Navigating through one-lane roads and sharp turns can be a real challenge. If your budget allows reserve a driver/ guide who can save your time and bring an inside knowledge.
The capital Victoria known for its Medieval Citadel and baroque era architecture is a good base to explore the rest of the island. Check PlanetWire for a complete list of must-see attractions on the island of Gozo.
If you are time constrained, there are day trips organized from Malta to Gozo and the Blue Lagoon
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